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Concept Specification in Political Science Research

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Research Design in Political Science


Political scientists seek to derive general statements from their empirical observations. For that purpose they make causal and descriptive inferences. The goal of inference is to produce reliable descriptive information, to test existing theories, and to formulate new theories (King, Keohane and Verba, 1994). The validity of empirical and causal inference, however, depends crucially on properly specified concepts. First of all, the clear definition of a concept allows others to understand the meaning of what we write. In addition, the content of concepts determines the content as well as the explanatory and the empirical scope of our theoretical hypotheses. For other steps in the process of designing research, unambiguous concepts are most obviously important in the design of an empirical strategy and the subsequent development of adequate measures (for a discussion of measurement, see Miller, Chapter 5). The reason for this is obvious: How are we to evaluate a measure’s adequacy if we are not sure what to measure in the first place?

The need for reconstruction results from destruction, from the fact that our disciplines have increasingly lost all ‘discipline’. Amidst the resulting state of noncumulability, collective ambiguity, and increasing incommunicability, it is imperative to restore or attempt to restore the conceptual foundations of the edifice. This is not to say that an exercise in conceptual reconstruction will restore consensus —we are far too disbanded for that. However, if the exercise succeeds, it will restore intelligibility — and, with intelligibility, an awareness of the enormous intellectual waste brought about by our present-day indiscipline (and methodological unawareness). (Sartori, 1984, p. 50)

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© 2007 Arndt Wonka

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Wonka, A. (2007). Concept Specification in Political Science Research. In: Gschwend, T., Schimmelfennig, F. (eds) Research Design in Political Science. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

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